The History of Nintendo

The History of Nintendo

It’s 2021, and video games are a part of life. Even if you’re not a gamer, you probably know a thing or two about the culture. Twitch streams, DLC, mods, skins, speedruns—it’s all common parlance now. America’s favorite sport isn’t baseball anymore; it’s gaming.

Nintendo reigns supreme in the world of video games. Sure, elitists might dismiss Nintendo’s games and consoles as ‘casual’ fare, but there’s no denying that the game industry wouldn’t be the same without the company’s innovative game design and cute, memorable characters. Who doesn’t recognize Mario, or Princess Peach, or Kirby?

Not everybody knows the long history of Nintendo as a company, though. They’ve been around for a while, and while they’re at the top of the heap today, how they got there is a long story.

Long, Long Ago

People usually associate the beginnings of Nintendo with their early 8-bit games, which were hits in the mid-80s. But if you took a guess as to when the company actually got started, you’d probably be wrong.

Nintendo was first called Nintendo Koppai, and it began as a humble Kyoto trading card manufacturer owned by Fusajiro Yamauchi in 1889. For some perspective, that’s the same year Van Gogh painted Starry Night, eight years before Bram Stoker published Dracula, thirty-three years before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and thirty-eight years before the invention of the television.

Nintendo Koppai made hanafuda—hand-painted “flower cards”—that Japanese people had used to play card games for centuries. Nintendo’s hanafuda were especially popular for their bold, eye-catching designs, and Nintendo quickly became the premier trading card company in Japan. They ventured into making Western-style cards and gained a bit of a reputation for being popular with gamblers and yakuza (this may be where the rumor that ‘Nintendo’ means ‘leave luck to heaven’ originates, but it’s most likely not true).

Fusajiro Yamauchi passed away in 1940, and his great-grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi took the reins in 1949. In the aftermath of World War II, Hiroshi decided his playing card company was going to have to diversify a bit. They rebranded as Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd in 1951, and after Hiroshi was inspired by Western animation, Nintendo secured the rights to make trading cards featuring Disney characters. Sales went up and Nintendo’s friendly relations with the U.S.A were established, but they still had a long way to go before becoming a video game giant. 

Jack of All Trades

As Japan barreled into the 60s and started rapidly modernizing, Hiroshi Yamauchi made sure Nintendo stayed with the times—mostly by trying a little of everything and seeing what worked.

Their ventures included a taxi service, a brand of instant rice, and a chain of love hotels, but none of them brought the success that Nintendo was looking for. The Japanese economy was booming, thanks to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but there were too many playing card companies out there for Nintendo to maintain a competitive edge.

The next year, though, they found their edge completely by chance. While visiting one of Nintendo’s manufacturing facilities, Hiroshi Yamauchi met Gunpei Yokoi, a mechanic tasked with maintaining the conveyor belts and other machinery. He had put together a little working mechanical arm, just for fun—and Yamauchi loved it. He had Yokoi design a toy that would mark the beginning of Nintendo’s run as a toy company, The Ultra Hand, which was a smash hit. He would go on to create iconic novelty toys that launched Nintendo to new heights. The success they found in the world of toys paved the way for their venture into the most exciting toy the world had ever seen: the video game.

Master of One

Nintendo snapped up the distribution rights to the Magnavox Odyssey, the first-ever home gaming console, in 1974. When they saw that the futuristic gadget was really gaining steam, they decided to make some home consoles of their own. Shigeru Miyamoto, who would later go on to run the entire company, helped design a series of basic game consoles, and Gunpei Yokoi created Game & Watch, a series of simple 8-bit handheld gaming devices.

Then, in 1981, Miyamoto created Donkey Kong, to roaring success. Nintendo was officially on the map in a big way. They branched out and created Nintendo of America in 1982, and the following year, they took what they had learned from previous console models and perfected it, launching the Family Computer System, or Famicom for short, in Japan. Overseas, though, they called it the Nintendo Entertainment System, or the NES.

The NES would live in fame as one of the most iconic creations of the late 20th century. In 1985, Super Mario Bros was released for the NES, and the world fell in love with the pair of red and green Italian plumbers.

After the success of Game & Watch, Nintendo ventured back into the business of handheld games and launched the Game Boy in 1989. With the Game Boy, people could play video games wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and before long, all the cool kids had one.

Ask anyone old enough to remember the 90s—Nintendo was on top of the world. After the releases of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES for short), the Nintendo 64, and the Game Boy Color, Nintendo was practically synonymous with video games. Zelda, Pokémon, and Mario and Luigi dominated pop culture. Nintendo licensed toys, cartoons and infinite merchandise of their beloved games. Even as the Japanese economy flagged in the late 90s, Nintendo put out the Game Boy Advance in 1999 and the GameCube in 2001. Nintendo’s staying power was so strong that even though the GameCube didn’t perform well on the market outright, it maintains a bit of a cult following twenty years after its release. Even the failure of the 1995 Virtual Boy—a forward-thinking console with stereoscopic graphics and rudimentary VR technology—couldn’t sink Nintendo’s reputation. At that point, it seemed nothing could. 

Win Some, Lose Some

In 2004, the Game Boy quietly stepped aside to make room for Nintendo’s next handheld gaming device, the Nintendo DS. The DS’s dual screens, touchscreen technology, wireless multiplayer capabilities and portable clamshell design made it a smash hit. But while it was blowing up, the minds at Nintendo were looking to the future.

In 2006, Nintendo changed the game completely with the release of the Wii. The Nintendo Wii was unlike anything ever seen before. Outfitted with accelerometers and infrared sensors, the Wii controller could detect its own position in a 3D space, allowing for innovative games that relied on motion controls. The Wii became the best-selling console of its generation.

Even Nintendo could make mistakes, though. Hoping to coast off the Wii’s success, they launched the WiiU in 2012, but the console suffered from an identity crisis. The controller with an integrated screen was a bit too far ahead of its time, and game developers weren’t sure how best to use it. Its graphics-processing was unremarkable, and it was quickly overshadowed by the releases of the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 a year later. The console was retired after selling less than fifteen million units in the five years it had been on shelves.

Nintendo gambled on the WiiU and lost—and it cost them. They were gaining a reputation for childish games and weak consoles, and they struggled to appeal to ‘core’ gamers. What to do?
True to form, Nintendo did what they had always done—innovate. The Nintendo Switch launched in 2017, and it was everything that they had hoped the WiiU would be. The Switch transitioned seamlessly from handheld device to big-screen console, and its major release titles, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, received rave reviews. Nintendo gambled again with the Switch, and this time, it had paid off.

What Next?

It’s anyone’s guess what the folks at Nintendo have planned. They enjoyed record-breaking profits when Animal Crossing: New Horizons released in March 2020, right as the coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam and lockdowns trapped everyone at home. Millions of people will always remember how Nintendo made quarantine a little more bearable.

It seems, though, that the pandemic isn’t letting up any time soon, so maybe Nintendo will do more to make their games social and interactive. The Nintendo Switch Online app, launched in 2018, allows co-op, voice chat and competitive online play for all members at a low cost. As video games replace real-world interaction and the line between the physical and the virtual keeps blurring, we can expect Nintendo to rise to the occasion and keep surprising us.

This coming September will mark 132 years since Fusajiro Yamauchi founded his trading card company in Kyoto, and if Nintendo keeps doing what they’re doing, they’ll be around for many more.

Rowan Thompson - February 22, 2021

Sources:
“Corporate Information : Company History.” Nintendo Co., Ltd., https://www.nintendo.co.jp/corporate/en/history/index.html.

Erbland, Kate. “A Brief History of 125 Years of Nintendo.” Mental Floss, 9 Oct. 2014, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/59057/brief-history-125-years-nintendo.

Stuart, Keith. “RIP Wii U: Nintendo's Glorious, Quirky Failure.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Feb. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/03/rip-wii-u-nintendos-glorious-quirky-failure.

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